Why you should care
No pain, no gain.
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A tingling sensation flutters down my arm, like ants creeping and crawling underneath my skin. Tiny electrodes zap my nerve endings, after which comes a sudden rush of pins and needles. But the pain soon melts into pleasure, as an app dials up the intensity a few notches. Sure, this electrotherapy sounds like it could fit into a scene from Fifty Shades of Gray, but that’s what happens when you try to hardwire your pain away.
If you’re in need of a little, um, stimulation, iTENS is a $99 wearable device that might do the trick by shocking away your pain. Got a bum knee or tender muscles? Stick this thin, FDA-approved device onto your body and soon an electric current will flow through your nerves — “like a smooth waterfall of current going into the body,” says iTENS CEO Joshua Lefkovitz at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. (I’d still go with a rush of pins and needles.) Nerves already send tiny electrical signals to tell the brain whether or not to feel pain, and iTENS hijacks that signal by intercepting pain signals before they reach the mind then encourage it to release feel-good endorphins instead.
My arm begs to differ; it’s still throbbing from the torrent of electric signals sent barreling into my bones and vessels. But the freakish feeling soon wears off and that once-nagging pain — sort of like a burr under my skin — that normally occurs after a long day of typing is gone. Indeed, medical experts like the American Academy of Pain Management’s Dr. John Garzione say pain-busting wearables like iTENS are fast “gaining in popularity” as an alternative to invasive surgery or a doctor-prescribed cocktail of drugs for curtailing bothersome pain. The market is potentially huge: More than one third of Americans suffer from chronic pain, according to the National Institute of Health. Of course, iTENS is certainly not alone in this field. The Quell strap, Oska Pulse pod, Cefaly headband and ActiPatch all also claim to deliver a steady stream of electrostimulation to your nerves in an effort to dull the aches and pains. What makes iTENS stand out, at least to me, is how fast the therapy works. Within seconds, the forearm loosens up.
Yet iTENS may still encounter an uphill battle when trying to convince people to shock themselves for pain relief. Moreover, there could be long-term, unintended consequences — like what happens if you keep zapping pain that’s a symptom of something far more serious? Lefkovitz says “there’s never a silver bullet for pain relief” and that iTENS works better in tandem with other pain-relieving practices like physical therapy or the old-fashioned ice bag. The FDA has cleared iTENS when it comes to safety, though only time will tell if there is any potential for misuse or addiction in the same the way people get hooked on painkillers. Garzione also points to the clunkiness of such devices, which sometimes require tangled wires and one too many electrodes that are awkwardly placed in the curves of your body. As he says, “they’re sometimes a pain in the neck to use.”
iTENS, for its part, doesn’t come with a litany of cords. But while I would do anything to banish my pain, the idea of electric shocks still makes my hair stand on end — and, for others, it may just be a tad too kinky.